Synthetic bacteria-fighting organisms win Lemelson-MIT prize

Bacteriophages aren't as popular as antibiotics--but that could change, thanks to researchers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

Timothy Lu, who is trying to bring back a method for fighting bacterial infections that fell out of favor in the West decades ago, has won the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize for 2008.

Lu and J.J. Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, created two bacteriophages that target E. coli. Bacteriophages are viruses that attack bacteria. The idea is to combine bacteriophage with antibiotics to better stamp out infectious diseases. Bacteriophage can also be used in food processing to prevent E. coli from infecting meat or vegetables. (Remember the 2006 spinach recall?)

Administered together, a genetically enhanced bacteriophage and antibiotics can potentially kill 30,000 times more bacteria than antibiotics alone. One of the bacteriophages were shown to be 99.997 percent effective against biofilms, a slime that can cover medical equipment.

Timothy Lu studies a biofilm. He has created bacteriophages that can wipe them out. MIT

More importantly, the two have created a relatively simple synthetic biology platform for creating new bacteriophages. Synthetic biology involves manipulating the genetic makeup of an organism or creating entirely new organisms out of lab-created strands of genes. Most companies, such as Synthetic Genomics, are developing relatively complex organisms that can turn wood into ethanol or other tasks. Lu's organisms require less engineering. Lu and Collins will next conduct research with the Center for Disease control on the concept. Companies have also approached them about licensing.

"We can find any type of phage, modify it, and combine it with an enzyme," Lu said.

Bacteriophages were used to combat diseases in the early part of the 20th century, Lu said in an interview. Bacteriophages, however, are very specific: a single species may target only one species of bacteria. Scientists back then didn't fully appreciate this, and didn't have the computers and others tools to scan all the different species to find the specific ones needed to fight a particular disease.

When antibiotics came around in the '20s and '30s, scientists gravitated toward them. Developing antibiotics, however, has become complicated and risky. Developing a new drug can cost around $930 million, according to a study from the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. Bacteria also develop resistance.

Although bacteriophage therapy dropped out of favor in the West, scientists in the old Eastern bloc continued to conduct research in the area.

Lu said he also went with a relatively simple application of synthetic biology to win more public acceptance for the idea. When many people hear the term, they immediately begin to think of Frankenbugs or worry about new types of laboratory-created diseases.

"We want to avoid that kind of battle," he said.

A biofilm. It needs to be killed. MIT

An undergraduate in electrical engineering, Lu got into biology after working on an MIT project to build a cochlear implant designed to allow deaf people to hear. He was intrigued by biomedical engineering--and one thing led to another. Lu's not alone, of course. Biology has been the most rapidly developing science in the past several years, and many universities are building up their bioengineering departments to capitalize on the expected rush of companies and innovations in the area.

The Lemelson-MIT program awards its annual student prize to MIT students who have invented a noteworthy new process or device. Previous winners include Nathan Ball, who came up with a small device that can pull a human being up a 30-story building in 30 seconds, and Carl Dietrich, who is working on a flying car (or, as Dietrich prefers to call it, a "roadable aircraft") called the Terrafugia.